This movie is based on a book by television preacher Bishop T.D. Jakes, who also appears in it himself, but it’s hardly your typical religious film. “Woman, Thou Are Loosed” is a story of redemption, of a sort, but redemption that arises from a milieu of darkness, poverty, ignorance and violence. It’s the tale of a young woman named Michelle (Kimberly Elise), who’s molested as a child by her mother’s sleazy live-in boyfriend, goes on to a life of drugs and prostitution, gets jailed, and tries to straighten her life out. (One of the conditions of her parole is that she has to attend a revival Jakes is conducting, where her mother is working, apparently as a volunteer.) It’s a difficult process–her old pimp (Sean Blakemore) demands payment of money she still owes him, her mother is still making house with the man who abused her, and her parole officer is hardly persuaded that she’s serious about turning the corner. She does meet a supportive guy–an old neighborhood chum (Michael Boatman) who’s now divorced with a lovely daughter and a positive attitude, and her mother’s hairdresser friend Twana (Debbi Morgan) is helpful; Jakes’ intense sermons eventually get through to her, too. But ultimately she can’t escape the torment of her past, and is driven to an act that lands her back in prison, this time on death row.
This summary of the story is misleading in that straightens out what’s told in fractured flashback, the various segments tied together by scenes in which a concerned, compassionate Jakes talks to Michelle as she builds a toy house in her cell. The thread that ties everything together is her impossible situation with her mother Cassie (Loretta Devine, whom you might remember from “Boston Public”), who deludes herself into believing that her daughter was never abused, and the shiftless, deceitful Reggie (Clifton Powell), the smarmy abuser. And periodically the picture gives major characters like Cassie and Reggie an opportunity to address the audience directly, offering apologiae for their conduct that will make many viewers shudder.
Michelle’s story might seem typical of the sort of melodrama that’s the stuff of well-meaning telefilms, but it’s told here with a virulent passion that would never be permitted on a network. Indeed, that’s ultimately the problem with “Woman Thou Are Loosed.” As directed, in stentorian style, by Michael Schultz, it’s played at too high-pitched a tone. Elise, Devine and Powell are all encouraged to give performances that are almost unvaryingly shrill. The effect is unfortunate for them all, but especially for Elise, a talented young actress who’s compelled to overemote in the most strenuous way with the camera mostly focused too tightly on her face. That doesn’t mean that all of the performers don’t have effective moments–indeed, even Bishop Jakes makes a strong impression in the scenes when he preaches his revival (he’s less successful in the more intimate scenes in which he talks with Michelle in her cell on death row)–but greater subtlety from the director’s chair would have aided them all to impress us more consistently. From a purely visual perspective the picture looks a mite murky, but that’s probably explained by a relatively modest budget.
“Woman, Thou Art Loosed” is a “religious” film in terms of its origin, but it’s not the sort of simplistically inspirational piece such a description might suggest. That’s a point in its favor. Unfortunately, setting aside its origin, the picture doesn’t manage to make it as a secular social commentary. It’s not an embarrassment, but not a triumph either.